Lougbo working back from meniscus injury

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Photo by John Leuzzi

Redshirt sophomore guard Nirel Lougbo during warmups prior to Marquette women’s basketball’s 68-32 win over Georgetown Jan. 14.

It was a normal off-season women’s basketball practice. Nirel Lougbo just came off her first-year season where she averaged 2.3 rebounds, 1.5 points and 1.3 assists after appearing in all 32 games during the 2019-20 season.

With the graduation of former guard Isabelle Spingola, the 5-foot-10 guard was entering her sophomore season looking to take on a bigger role and more minutes in the guard rotation.

However, with opening day right around the corner, Lougbo’s path took an unexpected turn.

A sudden knee injury forced her season to come to an end and for her to take a medical redshirt season.

“It was so hard, it was like nobody really understood what I was going through, but everybody tried their best,” Lougbo said.

Move ahead one year, nine months and 14 days to Dec. 22, 2021, when the Golden Eagles hosted the Cincinnati Bearcats. The game did not just represent Marquette’s then-ninth win of the season but also represented Lougbo’s return to the court.

Lougbo finished with two rebounds in four minutes of action in her return to the hardwood.

“I remembered what it feels like for it to be game day again,” Lougbo said.

While Lougbo has returned to suiting up in the blue and gold, her journey on her way back from an rare  meniscus injury turned into a lesson of perseverance, perspective and patience.

Prior to her injury, which resulted in Lougbo having to get surgery, she described her life as “go, go, go.”

“I thought, ‘what do we do now to try and get me back to the court?’ because I don’t know,” Lougbo said.

Following her surgery, Lougbo was left staring down the long and unpredictable road to recovery ahead of her.

“The injury was a little worse than we thought, so the comeback was a little harder,” Lougbo said.  “It was a whole bunch of trial and error.”

It was kind of hard to see myself getting back to the court when there are so many different schedules and plans people had for me and a lot didn’t end up working for me.”

During her rehab, Lougbo worked closely with assistant director of sports performance Maggie Smith as well as associate athletic trainer Leah Jankowski.

“The beginning was the hardest part for her and me,” Jankowski said. “I started at Marquette last year, we’re just right into the 2020-21 season and this happened (the injury). Nirel had to gain a lot of trust in me very quick and I appreciate her for that.”

Taking a positive approach  

Lougbo said in her time off the court, she realized how she took her first year for granted.

“I was really serious, trying to get the job done (freshman year). Being out showed me that you can have that balance of having fun and showing your personality on the court while getting the job done,” Lougbo said. “Now that I’m back, I don’t want to feel restricted. I want to bring that fun side of me on the court as well.” 

Lougbo’s positive outlook on life does not go unnoticed by those around her, especially by Jankowski.

“She’s a very driven individual and what I really appreciate about her is that she has taken all the negative aspects of this recovery and have turned it into positives. You will always see her smiling and joking and goofing around. No matter how frustrated she gets, she’s always going to spin it into something positive. And because of that, she’s always driven to be a better version of herself,” Jankowski said.

The road back 

While Lougbo said she faced challenges with the injury itself, it was the recovery aspect that tested her both physically and mentally.

“I am in the gym with Maggie (Smith) a lot, trying to build back up that strength,” Lougbo said. “The strength was the biggest piece that I needed to feel comfortable getting on the court and moving up and down with my teammates because without that I don’t think I would have had the ability to even really get back playing.”

Sophomore guard Danyel Middleton said she has seen Lougbo’s work ethic come alive.

“I honestly think that she’s been getting better this whole time she’s been out. She’s been getting way stronger. If you see her in a weight room, her vertical is now higher than everybody’s on the team,” Middleton said.

While pushing her physical limits, Lougbo shared how she maintained her goofy, positive attitude and mindset.

“Mentally, I don’t think it was at all a smooth ride or anything like that. It was an even mix of ups and downs,” Lougbo said. “And at the end of the day, the end result was always to get back (playing), and I’ve kind of done that now. So, it’s happy days from here.”

Middleton said Lougbo is one who leads by example, showing true perseverance and patience throughout it all.

“You’ll never see her down. You never see her upset about anything. I mean, she can have the worst news possible, but she always going to make a joke out of something,” Middleton said. “It’s like ‘yeah, I have an injury, but I’m going to still make the best of my life’.”

From a medical standpoint, Jankowski remembered the plan for recovery being halted one too many times due to COVID-19, which became one of the biggest setbacks.

Despite the many obstacles that neither Lougbo, Jankowski or Smith could control, the three found communication to be the key.

“The one thing that we have learned is open communication throughout the entire process. We’re not going to sugarcoat anything for her (Lougbo). We’re going to be honest but at the same time, she knows that Maggie and I are not going to put her on the court unless we know that she is safe out there.

That’s the biggest thing for us. As much as we want to see her back on the court, we must do it in a safe manner,” Jankowski said.

Though Lougbo saw a few minutes in that game against Cincinnati, Jankowski said her recovery journey is not over.

“Whether she’s (Lougbo) getting 10, 20, 30 minutes, our goal is to continue having her out there without putting her (injury) back further,” Jankowski said. “I’s definitely a work in progress and we’re getting there (but) I’m just very proud of how far she has come in this long period of time.”

The game

Lougbo, after what she described as a lifetime out, was able to play alongside her teammates just a few weeks ago.

“Everybody has their little game day routine. I’m sitting there and I don’t even know what to do with myself. I was just in my room, thinking, ‘wow,’” Lougbo said. “Even though it wasn’t for a long time, just being out there with my teammates to get that feeling back was really nice.”

Watching Lougbo back on the hardwood was emotional not only for herself, but for her team and support system as well, Jankowski said.

Middleton said on behalf of the team that they had been waiting for Lougbo’s debut for a long time, so being able to run the court with her was a great feeling.

Lougbo credits her return to the court to Smith and Jankowski.

“Props to them, they helped a lot with the comeback,” Lougbo said.

In similar sense, Jankowski was quick to point the credit right back to Lougbo.

“Any athletic trainer loves seeing athletes back on the court, especially when it comes to injuries like this and the recovery that she (Lougbo) had,” Jankowski said.

Though the injury took its toll, Lougbo recalls finding strength in the journey.

“I think once people really understand what the journey is, they’re taken aback a little. They say things like, “dang, you overcame a lot to get here,”” Lougbo said.

This article was written by Ava Mares. She can be reached at ava.mares@marquette.edu or on Twitter @avamaresMU.